Education 'the key to breaking cycle of deprivation'

Education could be the key to breaking the "cycle of deprivation" in which children who do badly at school are more likely to become teenage parents, producing children who are themselves disadvantaged, according to new research published today.

A fresh study of the lives of 17,000 children born in 1958 has shown that those who leave school with no educational qualifications are far more likely to become teenage mothers, to have large families, to become divorced and separated, to be lone parents and to end up living on income support. The same pattern of disadvantage holds for young fathers - those who have children before they are 22.

But the same solution - more effective investment in education - may apply, Kathleen Kiernan, a researcher at the London School of Economics whose interest is families and parenthood, not education itself, said yesterday.

Improved investment "may be a critical component in the prevention of early parenthood and its attendant disadvantage," she added.

Her findings come from work funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the National Child Development Study which in 1991 examined what had become of children born in 1958 by the time they were 33.

Dr Kiernan found that girls who left school at 16 with no educational qualifications were nearly three times more likely to become teenage mothers than those who did well at school.

They were more likely to have come from poorer households, to have had a teenage mother themselves. They had more serious behavioural problems at school, and their chances of divorce and separation, of being a lone parent, and of living on income support were all much higher.

Young fathers, too, were twice as likely to be unemployed than those who had children later. They were more likely to be on benefit, more likely to be on low income and less likely, as were the teenage mothers, to be owner-occupiers.

But once many of the factors affecting their childhood had been allowed for - from financial difficulty at home, to behavioural problems at school, to having a teenage mother, to coming from a lower social class - a key divider remained school performance.

Those who did badly at school at both seven and 16 - two of the ages when the sample was studied - were four times more likely to become teenage parents than children who were in the top half of school performance.

Those who did badly at seven but well at 16, however, stood only the same risk of teenage childbirth as those who did well at both ages.

And the crucial effect that education may have is reinforced by the finding that those whose performance deteriorated - doing well at seven but badly at 16 - ran the highest risk of all of teenage childbirth. They were seven times more likely to become a young parent than children who did well at both ages.

The finding, Dr Kiernan said, "is the glimmer to hope that something can be done about this and that the high risk of teenage parenting, with all the problems it brings, may be reduced by increased investment in education".

The finding held for boys as well as for girls.

t Social backgrounds and post-birth experiences of young parents; Social Policy Findings 80; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 40 Water End, York, YO3 6LP; free.